The people of other nations take their identity from the common ancestry that led them to gather under one flag. Americans are different. Their ideals are the basis of their national identity. They are people linked by a set of principles that became its common bond.
The United States is a country of immigrants. Nationalities that warred constantly in Europe had to find a way to live together in the New World. American ideals contributed to a oneness among nationalities that had never trusted one another before. Americans are one people brought together through allegiance to a set of common ideals such as liberty and equality. They form a political culture which refers to the characteristic and deep-seated beliefs of a particular people about government and politics.
These core ideals are rooted in the European heritage of the first settlers that arrived during the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment awakened people to the idea of human progress. These settlers wanted freedom to practice religion and hoped for greater self-governance. Their beliefs were shaped by European thought and practice, which had been molded by Greek, Roman and Judeo-Christian traditions. America’s ideals begins with a recognition that the individual comes first. Government is secondary. Government’s role is to serve the people, as opposed to a system in which government is at the pinnacle and the people are expected to glorify it.
Liberty, equality, and self-government are regarded as America’s core political ideals. Liberty is the principle that individuals should be free to act and think as they choose, provided they do not infringe unreasonably on the freedom and well-being of others. At the time of the writing of the Constitution in 1787, liberty was conceived as protection against unwarranted government interference in people’s lives. Or example, the First Amendment defines a set of actions that government is forbidden to take.
“Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people to peaceably assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
A new threat to personal liberty emerged during the Industrial Revolution. Business trusts gouged customers and forced laborers to work long hours at low pay in unsafe factories. Americans looked to government for protection against powerful economic interests. Business regulation, social security, and minimum-wage laws were among the resulting policies.
A second American political ideal is equality. Equality is the notion that all individuals are equal in their moral worth, are entitled to equal treatment under the law, and in their political voice. However, equality has been a less clearly defined concept than liberty. Americans argue over the meaning of equality. Does equality require that wealth and opportunity be widely shared? Or does it merely require that artificial barriers to advancement be removed? Despite differing opinions, the quest for equality is a distinctive feature of the American experience.
America’s third political ideal is self-government. It is the principle that people are the ultimate source of government authority and must have a voice in how they are governed. Federal and state constitutions were based on the idea that government is properly founded on the will of the people.
The American Creed is the set of core values that includes other principles. Individualism is the idea that people should take the initiative, be self-sufficient, and accumulate the material advantages necessary for their well-being. Individualism stems from the belief that people, if free to pursue their own path and not unfairly burdened, can attain their fullest potential.
Unity and diversity are also part of the American Creed. Unity is the principle that Americans are one people and form an indivisible union. Diversity is the principle that individual and group differences should be respected and are a source of national strength. These two principles acknowledge at once both the differences and the oneness that are part of the American experience.
Ideals serve to define the boundaries of action. They do not determine exactly what people will do, but they affect what people will regard as reasonable and desirable. Cultural beliefs originate in a country’s political and social practices, but they are not perfect representatives of these practices. Although they are mythic, inexact, and conflicting, these ideals have had a powerful effect on what generation after generation of Americans has tried to achieve politically for themselves and others.
1) Current Events entry for August 22-26
2) Current Events entry for August 29 – September 2
3) Chapters 1-5 Test on Thursday 9/8.
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